The Unconquerable World

The Unconquerable World

Violence, Hannah Arendt said, destroys power. The United States is moving quickly down this path.


The Nation is pleased to publish extracts from Jonathan Schell’s new book, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and The Will of the People, out this week from Metropolitan Books. Schell’s latest literary contribution to the cause of peace sets forth a clear and informed path to a world where armed conflict is no longer the arbiter of political disputes. Click here to order a copy of The Unconquerable World.

Violence, Hannah Arendt said, destroys power. The United States is moving quickly down this path. Does the American leadership today imagine that the people of the world, having overthrown the great territorial empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, are ready to bend the knee to an American overlord in the twenty-first? Do they imagine that allies are willing to become subordinates? Have they forgotten that people hate to be dominated by force? History is packed with surprises, some of them appalling. The leaders of the totalitarian Soviet empire somehow had the good sense in the late twentieth century to yield up their power without unleashing the tremendous violence that was at their fingertips. Could it be the destiny of the American republic, unable to resist the allure of an imperial delusion, to flare out in the twenty-first in a blaze of pointless mass destruction?

Violence is the means, as all dictators have known, whereby the few dominate and exploit the many. Nonviolence is the means by which the many can reclaim their rights and advance their interests. Peace begins, someone has said, when the hungry are fed. It is equally true that the hungry will be fed when peace begins. Equality and nonviolence–peace and justice–are inextricably linked, and neither can flourish in the absence of the other. Peace, social justice and defense of the environment are a triad to pit against the imperial triad of war, economic exploitation and environmental exploitation.

The idea that power is born out of action in concert had not gone unnoticed in political thought. Burke summed it up in a sentence when he said, “Freedom, when men act in concert, is power.” Tocqueville said much the same in his analysis of the vibrant civil society he witnessed in the United States in the 1830s. “There is no end which the human will despairs of attaining,” he asserted, “through the combined power of individuals united into a society.” Referring to the “power of meeting,” he remarked, “Democracy does not confer the most skillful kind of government upon the people, but it produces that which the most skillful governments are frequently unable to awaken, namely an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it, and which may, under favorable circumstances, beget the most amazing benefits.”

The twentieth century produced the most extreme violence that the human species has ever visited upon itself. It was natural–indeed, it was a necessity–that, in different ways, people would react against it, would seek ways to overcome it, to escape it, to go around it, to replace it. In earlier times, violence had been seen as the last resort, when all else had failed. “Hallowed are those arms where no hope exists but in them,” Livy had written. But in the twentieth century, a new problem forced itself on the human mind: What was the resort when that last resort had bankrupted itself? Was there a resort beyond the “final” resort? Nuclear deterrence and people’s war were two groping, improvised, incomplete attempts to find answers to this question.

Rejecting a choice between accommodation and violent, all-or-nothing revolution, the Eastern Europeans decided upon the incremental pursuit of revolutionary ends with peaceful, reformist means. Acting on the basis of common principles yet without any blueprint–“in cooperation without unification,” in the phrase of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu–they pooled the variegated forces of society to achieve a radical renewal of their political lives. A revolution against violence in the world at large would, in imitation of this procedure, not be the realization of any single plan drawn up by any one person or council but would develop, like open software, as the common creation of any and all comers, acting at every political level, within as well as outside of government, on the basis of common principles.

The larger question, facing not just the United States but any country that might be eager to establish an empire, is whether the connection between military and political power–snapped by the world revolt of the twentieth century–can be restored. Does power still flow from the barrel of a gun or a B-2 bomber? Can the world in the twenty-first century really be ruled from 35,000 feet? Can cruise missiles build nations? Modern peoples have the will to resist and the means to do so. Force can confer a temporary advantage, but politics is destiny.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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